After Samos, Kos and Crete, our next destination was the tiny island of Symi, which gets my vote as the most picturesque of all the Greek islands we visited.
On the ferry from Rhodes a small man with a thick head of long, prematurely silver hair, a silver moustache and the brightest, saddest eyes the colour of chicory flowers came and sat beside us. His name was Nikolaos, he said, but he was known as Nick.
He made friendly conversation all the way to the beautiful harbour, and found somebody to help heave our luggage up the 500 stone steps to our accommodation. He would come by the following morning, he promised.
True to his word, he turned up on a phut-phutting scooter. And from then on, for the 14 days of our holiday, he was ever-present. Wherever we were, he was never far behind. He showed us the best beaches, organised a boat trip for us around the island with one of his friends, pointed out the best restaurants, the best bakery, the best places to buy cheese, the best wine, and introduced us to a British couple who owned a home on the island, who had an interesting story to tell.
The man was a television producer. After trying for a family for some years, his wife had been told it was physically impossible for her ever to conceive. When a neighbour on Symi heard that, she assured them that all they needed to do was to light a candle at the monastery at Panormitis and ask St Michael for a baby.
So they did, and nine months later they had a baby. A curious tale, but true. If you don’t believe it, then here’s the story from the
horse’s television presenter’s mouth.
Nick invited us to go on a picnic with his family at an idyllic little cove. It was a stressful afternoon because his wife, a rather large woman with a single angry eyebrow, was as sullen and silent as an Easter Island carving, their small boy kept throwing stones at me and smirking at his mother when his father wasn’t looking, and Nick spent the whole time sitting on a rock in the sea staring at the horizon.
So we were dismayed when Nick told us the following day that he had prepared a very special lamb stifado for us (this was before we stopped eating meat). The meat had been marinating in a mixture of wine and special herbs since yesterday, and we were to have dinner at his house that evening. He wouldn’t accept any refusal.
Like the picnic, it was a most uncomfortable interlude. His wife scowled all evening, and their small boy kicked me under the dining table. Nick had done all the cooking and did all the serving, while his wife sat, silently, and did nothing. We felt like actors in a play who hadn’t been allowed to read the script.
What had we done to invoke this friendship, we wondered. He was so kind, but why? The saying “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” was still ringing in my ears from our Kos experience. And why were his wife and small boy so hostile?
The following day, I found out. Nick was taking us to another one of his ‘special’ beaches, not far from our villa. Terry could walk, he explained, it was only half a mile down a stony track. I would ride on the scooter, which I did with extreme reluctance, because I had a fall from one many years previously and never forgot the humiliation and pain of lying on scorching tarmac, amidst dense traffic, with a red-hot exhaust pipe burning my leg and my mini-skirt up around my armpits.
Terry set off ahead of us, and after the scooter had bumped and phutted down the track for a couple of hundred yards, Nick stopped, turned off the engine and turned around to declare that he loved me. He had loved me from the first moment he saw me on the ferry.
Trying to make light of the moment, I said that we loved him too – he had become a dear brother and friend to us both.
No, he replied, not brother, not friend. Lover.
But, I said, we are married to other people. You can’t fall in love with somebody you have only met a few days ago.
You don’t love me? His eyes filled with tears.
Only as a friend, not in any other way. Come on, stop being silly. Let’s go!
Maybe you can love me more one day?
No! You are very special. We are friends, but I don’t love you any other way, and I never will.
But you are the same like her. You look like her. Like the woman I really love so much. Too much. His tears were threatening to overflow.
Tell me, I said.
And here is the story of a Greek drama that had unfolded eight years earlier.
As a merchant seaman, he had met a Greek girl in Durban, South Africa. They had fallen in love, and she had come to live with him in Symi. For nearly a year they had enjoyed a blissful existence in a small cottage overlooking the sea, with the smell of wild herbs on the air. They ate vegetables they grew themselves, fish they caught themselves, bread and cheese and wine from the friendly owners of the local shops. They were, he said, one soul.
Then they ran out of money, and Nick had to return to sea, leaving his lady in the small cottage. He was gone for 8 months, regularly sending money and letters, but never receiving a reply.
When he returned, she had gone. She had left a letter.
In it, she wrote of how, as soon as he had gone, the local people had turned against her, ostracised her, shouted at her, and the friendly owners of the local shops now refused to serve her. Go away, they had told her, you don’t belong here. Go back to your family. Leave our men alone. She had heard nothing from him in all the time he was away. Without news and money, friendless and isolated, she had been forced to contact her family in South Africa to ask for help. They had sent money for her to buy a ticket to return there.
He learned that his mother and sisters had arranged to have all his mail delivered to them so that his letters, and the money he sent had never reached the girl; the women of his family had led a campaign to drive away the woman he loved.
He flew to Durban and found out where her family lived. He went there and knocked on the door. Her mother answered the door. She told him that her daughter had brought shame upon the family by going to live with him; she was lucky that a decent man had been prepared to accept her. They had married two weeks ago. No, she would not tell him where they lived. She closed the door.
Poor Nick, tears were now running down his cheeks.
He had returned to Symi and married a local girl because his mother would give him no peace until he did. After they were married, his wife had opened a chest in which he kept all the mementos and souvenirs of his travels around the world, the whole history of his career in the navy. Carvings and postcards, seashells and stones, ethnic goods – small things worth nothing in terms of money, but for him irreplaceable treasures. And one photo of his lost love.
His wife had burned them all while he was out, and left a pile of ash on the steps. He had never forgiven her, and now he had a wife he did not care for, and who did not care for him, and a son who was under his mother’s influence and was rude and disobedient.
We need to go, Nick, I said gently. Terry will wonder what has happened to us. Come on.
Silently we rode down to the beach, and ate ice cream and tossed pebbles into the water, and learned that during the tourist season there were many people kept locked away by their families, because they were ‘not normal’ and would frighten visitors. Because Symi people must always marry other Symi people, said Nick, bitterly. No people from other places. So now too many people with things wrong with them.
As beautiful as the island was, with the scent of herbs and coffee and fresh-baked bread and moussaka, and the blue waters of the Aegean sparkling in the sun, the simmering emotion began to feel oppressive. Every day, Nick found us, wherever we went, and sat brooding, gazing out to sea and saying that one day he would go and find the lady he still loved.
On our last evening we took him to eat with us at a nearby taverna, to thank him for all his kindness and hospitality. We dined on succulent ‘lombster’ and drank a little too much fresh white wine. Then we said a final farewell to our friend, waving as he zig-zagged away on his scooter.
Our ferry left early the next morning, and as we were boarding, the engines clonking, there was a lot of shouting and hooting from the harbour side.
A small figure ran towards us, shouting. Clutched to his chest was a very large can. “Honey! Best Symi honey,” he smiled. He had bought it that morning from his friend, whose bees feasted on the wild thyme that smothers the island, and then he had taken it to a factory to have it canned, so that it wouldn’t spill. So you will remember Nick, and Symi, he said.
As we shook hands, he pressed a piece of paper into my palm.
On it he had written his address, and ‘Please write to me. I love you.’
Once we were out of sight of the island, I let the piece of paper fly into the air and twirl into the sea.
We never returned to Symi, but whenever I see or taste honey scented with thyme, I think of Nick and wonder if he ever did go and find the lady he had loved and lost. I’d like to think he did. But with a Greek tragedy, you can never tell how it will end.
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